Official Conversion in Israel
Study and Preparation for Conversion
Ahead of you lies a course of study, whose aim is to increase your Jewish knowledge and open the door to a traditional way of life. Your course of study is overseen by the conversion ulpans (preparatory institutes), which offer you various tracks, and are run by different organizations. Your personal experiential journey is supervised and guided by your ulpan teacher, your adoptive family, your community, and an officer of bet din. Conversion is a process designed to influence your values and your identity, and it is experienced intellectually and emotionally, personally and socially, individually and nationally. Just as swimming cannot be learned in a correspondence course, so too the conversion process cannot be limited to theoretical study of Judaism. The Jewish way of life must be experienced, tasted and lived.
Conversion is a slow gradual process. No one expects you to know all the Jewish laws or to be observant when you first come to open a conversion file. Your courtship with Judaism needs to be a slow and personal process, so that you can have the opportunity to think, to question, to receive answers, to implement what you have learned, and to ponder new questions. The length of the process also allows you to experience most of the special days and periods in the Jewish calendar, all while teachers and others are available to you, to guide you and to help you mold your religious identity.
Study of Judaism
In the period of time prior to your conversion ceremony, you are expected to expand your knowledge of Jewish history, halacha, and Jewish thought, and of important Jewish sites, in order to afford you a greater understanding of and connection to Jewish life.
Tanach: Knowledge of basic Bible stories: Creation, Noach and the flood, our patriarchs and matriarchs, Exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah on Sinai, the Ten Commandments and the trek through the desert, the conquest of the Land of Israel, the reign of Saul, David, and Solomon, and basic familiarity with scriptural law and morality, and with the words of the prophets.
History: Familiarity with basic periods and concepts in Jewish history: the Temple, the period of the Mishna and Gemara, the destruction of the Temple and exile, the Return to Zion, Jewish scholarly works in the Middle Ages, Eastern European Jewry, Sephardic Jewry, Zionism, Aliya, the Holocaust and antisemitism, the State of Israel, Israel’s wars, the history of conversion.
Faith: Familiarity and identification with the fundamentals of Jewish faith, particularly the 13 principles of faith formulated by Maimonides : the existence of God, the unity of God (monotheism), the primacy of God (that He preceded all other existence), anthropomorphism (that God is not physical), the creation of the world and man, Divine providence, reward and punishment, the chosenness of the Jewish people, the eternity of the Torah, the singularity of Moshe’s prophecy, the world to come, the Messiah, and redemption.
The Halacha: The different stages in the development of the oral law, including very basic familiarity with key halachic works and their authors (mishna, talmud, rishonim, Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, R. Yosef Karo, Shulchan Aruch).
Way of life: Study of practical law – the order and meaning of the prayers (daily and Shabbat and festivals), familiarity with the synagogue and the laws and customs associated with it – aliyot to the Torah, sefer Torah, tallit, and tefillin, mezuza, and netillat yadayim; fluency in basic tefillot such as Modeh Ani, Shema, and the blessings before and after eating; the laws of kashrut – kosher and non-kosher animals, koshering meat, waiting between meat and milk, keeping a kosher kitchen, buying kosher food, koshering kitchen utensils, kashrut of fruits and vegetables, etc.; halachot of shabbat, including the reasons for Shabbat, the 39 primary prohibitions, secondary prohibitions, muktza, the meals, kiddush and havdala, oneg shabbat, eiruv, the saving of life and medicine on Shabbat, etc.; the laws of the holidays and festivals and the Jewish calendar, Biblical holidays, the historical and agricultural reasons for the festivals, customs, laws and specials foods, prayers and megillot, the fast days and traditional mourning periods.
The Jewish lifecycle, including the ceremonies of brit milah, pidyon haben, Bar and Bat mitzvah, Jewish marriage, burial and mourning.
Family purity, including laws regarding intimacy between a husband and wife and immersion in the mikveh.
Values: charity and acts of kindness, love of one’s fellow man, hospitality, education of children, respect between husband and wife, modesty, sanctity of the land of Israel, Jerusalem and the Bet Hamikdash, love for the convert, and study of Torah.
The conversion ulpan is the place where you will spend many hours studying about Judaism, together with other people who are also interested in converting. The total number of hours that is required for conversion studies is approximately 500. You will be assigned material to read and review occasionally, and tested on your studies. As part of your course of study, there will be tours of historical or religious sites, and other special activities. Approximately 270 conversion ulpans open annually throughout the country. These ulpans do not begin at set times, but rather depend on the need and demand in various regions throughout the country. Classes are generally held in community centers, schools, or synagogues, so that learning conditions are generally comfortable. One or two regular teachers teach each ulpan, and class size ranges between 20-25 people. The language of instruction varies from ulpan to ulpan, depending on demand. Conversion classes are held, on a regular basis, throughout the country, in Hebrew, English, Russian, Spanish, and Amharic.
There are presently in Israel two central bodies, which operate recognized ulpans and work in conjunction with the religious courts that specialize in conversion:
1) Ministry of Education conversion ulpans:
Veteran ulpans, which prepare converts for conversion according to Orthodox doctrine and beliefs. The 500-hour course of study, offered in various languages of instruction, focuses on Tanach, religious faith, holidays and halacha. These ulpanim are funded by the Education Ministry (and by the Jewish Agency in ulpans in religious kibbutzim), with the support of various non-governmental institutions such as Machanayim, Shavei Yisrael, Ohr Torah Stone, etc. Almost all of the participants in these ulpans successfully pass their interview by bet din.
2) Ulpans sponsored by the Institute for Jewish Studies:
These ulpans operate as a government service to the new immigrant, and are financed by the Ministry of Absorption, the office of the Prime Minister, and the Jewish Agency. These courses are not intended only for prospective converts, but rather for any immigrant interested in expanding his knowledge of Judaism. Participants in these classes do not go through any initial screening process and do not from the outset commit themselves to converting. The Institute for Jewish studies opened its doors in 1999, at the recommendation of a committee comprised of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform representatives. The institute only offers services related to the educational process, while the ultimate decision regarding conversion remains exclusively in the hands of the Orthodox rabbinic court.
The 440-hour study program is taught by a diverse group of teachers, and includes an emphasis on Jewish history, Zionism, and the Holocaust, in addition to tanach, philosophy, and halacha. The institute runs approximately 160 sessions a year (out of which, approximately 50% are for adults, 20% are for soldiers, and the rest are for students and youth) Most of the classes are taught in Russian. At the conclusion of the general course, all those who are interested can receive specialized tutoring and mentoring in preparation for their interview before the religious court for conversion. Many of the candidates who appear before bet din pass the conversion test successfully. One begins one’s course of study in the Institute for Jewish studies before registering in bet din. After approximately three months of study, all students who are interested in converting collectively open conversion files in bet din, with the assistance of their teacher.
The decision regarding which type of ulpan to choose is often based on practical considerations: geographical proximity, language of instruction, or the time of year in which the semester begins. Someone who is still deliberating over his decision to convert, may opt to study in the Jewish Studies